Various Artists – The Lie of the Land

The portrait above suggests how the aristocracy and the English landscape are as harmonious and natural as the sun that shines down on the rolling hills of the estate over which its subject, Mr Plampin, lauds.

It was around the time that Gainsborough painted the picture that landed estates, sculpted by landscape artists such as Capability Brown, were opened up to the public as places of leisure and which came to influence the British obsession with parks and gardens. The first to do so was Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire and part of the theme of Lie of the Land is to trace a line between Stowe and the urban experiment that is Milton Keynes only 15 miles away and which forms the inaugural exhibition in the city’s sparkingly refurbished Milton Keynes Gallery.

Lie of the Land offers a variety of different perspectives on landscapes and cities, looking at the many and different ways we spend our free time, for example. Curatorially, it’s as sprawling as a town or city whose planning restrictions have been subverted. It’s a somewhat messy and disparate affair in which themes of the rise of leisure and public entertainment overlap with class, race and gender politics. It’s where the first lawnmower is sited not far from the pop-art of Paolozzi and Hamilton and the op-art of Bridget Riley, or the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens painted by Giovanni Canaletto shares space with Jeremy Deller’s flow graph comparing rave culture and brass band music.

Helmut Jacoby, Milton Keynes in 1990, ©Estate of Helmut Jacoby

The exhibition showcases the various ways artists and designers including Gainsborough, JMW Turner, Ithell Colquhoun and others have tried to impose their ideas on understanding and transforming the landscape. Fittingly, the plans for the modernist city of Milton Keynes, above, was a utopian vision in which an American-style car-friendly grid system predominates amid a wealth of greenery and in which different sectors are all well-connected through roads, bus routes and cycleways. 

The town is much derided as having no centre, no soul. The traditional high street has been replaced by large shopping and leisure facilities. The people who live there like it. The exhibition examines many of the shifting perspectives behind such utopian ideas. On view are pictures relating to garden cities, great expositions as the Festival of Britain and the way leisure became a commodity with horse race meetings, hot-air ballooning, greyhound racing, football matches and the rest. 

David Shrigley, Leisure Centre, 1992. ©David Shrigley. Image ©Tate London 2018

Of course, Utopian ideas of countryside, cities and our modern landscapes are often brought down by darker aspects such as over-commercialisation and consumerism, not to mention austerity, mismanagement, lack of funds, corruption and so on. The ‘Lie’ in Lie of the Land reveals another layer of meaning. David Shrigley’s fatalistic picture above highlights various city councils’ unrealised aspirations and plans. A futile sculpture is as far as the proposed leisure centre ever got!

There’s an overtly political aspect to some of the themes offered by the exhibition. In a section entitled No Right of Way, we see how a person’s right to live in and enjoy the English landscape has always been determined by boundaries of class, race and gender. You can’t imagine the hoi-polloi being able to roam the estates of the likes of Mr Pamplin. Indeed, the famous ha-ha at Stowe Gardens, a kind of disguised ditch, was constructed to keep animals and undesirables out. 

Protest groups such as The Diggers and Levellers who advocated land being brought into common ownership in the 17th century and were crushed, are referenced in the show. More recent protests are embodied in Thalia Campbell’s large embroidered banner from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, set up in protest at the siting of nuclear weapons at the US air base there.

Jo Spence, Remodelling Photo History – Victimisation, 1982 ©Estate of artist

Jo Spence’s photograph, above, gives the ‘Lie’ in the exhibition’s title yet another shade of meaning. Her protest at the right to roam and trespass laws echo back to the Levellers. Her nakedness alludes to the right to inhabit a non-idealised female body and an attack on the male gaze.

In all, there are 85 artists represented in the exhibition. They include Henry Moore, LS Lowry, Rachel Whiteread, Elisabeth Frink, Tracy Emin to name but a few in addition to those already mentioned. To my mind, there are too many exhibits. A wonderful painting The Diving Stage by Paul Nash, for example, is hung so high as to be almost inaccessible. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of thought-provoking material here about how our land, country and cities have come to be what they are and the way our culture and society have shaped them. Added to that, there’s a fair sprinkling of humour too, all in a lovely, new setting.

The Lie of the Land continues at Milton Keynes Gallery until 26 May 2019

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